Cultivating Compassion for Survivors

Attempt survivors are not nameless, faceless statistics. We can't be stereotyped or huddled together under one big umbrella of "crazy." We are not selfish. We are real people with real problems, and we're in pain.
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Sergeant Kevin Briggs is a recently retired California Highway Patrol officer known as the Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge. He patrolled the bridge for 20 years, talking suicidal people out of jumping and into leaving the bridge alive. Forty-six people ended their lives at the bridge in 2013. Another 118 walked away--likely because of officers like Sgt. Briggs--but inevitably still hurting, lost, and in need of support.

I'm a photographer by trade. For the past four years, I've been working on a series of portraits of suicide attempt survivors called Live Through This. Each portrait is paired with a story about the survivor's experience--anything from what led up to their attempt(s), their recovery, how they were treated by medical/mental health professionals, their feelings about psychiatric medications, what their support systems look like, to other mitigating factors, like postpartum depression or sexual abuse.

I do this work because I'm a suicide attempt survivor, myself.

When I make the portraits, I get in close to the face. I focus on the eyes. What I want the viewer to take away is that attempt survivors are not nameless, faceless statistics. We can't be stereotyped or huddled together under one big umbrella of "crazy." We are not selfish. We are real people with real problems, and we're in pain.

And an inability to talk about those problems (because our society actively discourages it) is a key factor in what leads a person to attempt suicide.

I've spoken with 88 attempt survivors in nine US cities, and the consistency between all of their stories is a feeling of isolation and hopelessness.

That's what leads people to the bridge. When Sgt. Briggs started patrolling the bridge in the mid-'90s, officers were not equipped to handle suicidal crises. Eventually, crisis intervention training became a priority, likely due to the growing number of suicide deaths on the bridge (and the well-being of the officers handling the calls). Now, officers know what the warning signs are; how to talk to someone who might be feeling suicidal; what resources are available; and how to take care of themselves after handling such a situation (which is especially important if the outcome of a call is bleak).

The Golden Gate Bridge is not some suicide vacuum. It may be a prime "suicide destination," but suicide is all around us. The reality is that the suicide rate in the US has been rising steadily since 2000. A suicide is attempted every 40 seconds. Someone dies by suicide every 14 minutes.

More often than not, police and EMS teams are on the front lines with those actively in suicidal crises. More often than not, they're not trained properly. The same goes for medical professionals, like ER staff and doctors, even though ~50% of those who die by suicide have seen a doctor in the month before their death. Just 10% of mental health professionals in the US are competent to assess and manage suicidal crises in clients. These are the very people we look to as experts in the goings-on of the human mind, and yet appropriate training is only mandatory in two states.

Something is wrong, here. Crisis intervention training shouldn't be relegated to first responders in places with high suicide risk or those of us with niche interests in suicide prevention (many of us do this work because it has affected someone we love, or us personally). It should absolutely be mandatory in all of the vocations mentioned above, but let's take it one step further: What if every single one of us was trained in the basics of suicide prevention? What if we could detect a suicidal crisis in our children, in our peers, in our coworkers? What if we taught it in health class? What if we had relatable, affordable trainings available to everyone?

In the summer of 2012, I interviewed Kevin Hines, arguably the most vocal of the Golden Gate Bridge survivors (of which there are only 34 since the bridge opened in 1937).

He said, "We, as human beings, are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, and if we don't wake up and realize it's not just us in this world--that old adage, 'We're not alone'--we're not alone! And no person in a fight for their life is alone."

And he's onto something. We've lost sight of our duty to care for one another. Our fear of death--especially at the hands of oneself--perpetuates ignorance and an inability to empathize with others in emotional pain. It's not a stretch to see why we so often have trouble reaching out, but that doesn't make it right. We need to cultivate compassion, and we need to do it now.

Do me a favor. Learn what the warning signs are. Learn about a handful of suicide prevention resources (start with The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Crisis Text Line, and The Trevor Project) and keep them in your back pocket. Consider volunteering for your local crisis center or enrolling in a crisis intervention training program (such as Emotional CPR or ASIST). Most importantly, take your kids or your friends seriously when they tell you they're hurting. Don't tell them to suck it up and deal. Listen to them. Tell them that you love them. Then help them find the help they need.

If you're feeling suicidal, please talk to someone. Try a friend or family member, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They are confidential to a point, and may contact authorities if they think you're in immediate danger to yourself. If you're not in the US, click here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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